Chinese food has gotten a bad rep in Western culture, and rightfully so. The abuse of MSG and soy sauce to cover up an absence of natural flavor has become widespread in takeout joints, while the use of fresh herbs has given way to less-expensive alternatives. Battered and fried meat-like substances slathered with days-old slime have taken on the highly descriptive title “Sweet and Sour,” and crispy, blistering egg rolls bear no resemblance to their spring roll ancestors.
Is this the result of consumer demand? Probably. As Western studies have condemned the intake of various animal fats, previously traditional Hunan or Sichuan dishes have turned into blander meals based on vegetable oil. It’s no secret that Americans are much more fond of cloying sweets than complex spices, so sugars have increasingly found their way into sauces. Shark fin soup is a political abhorrence and the porcine intestines or trotter were never Western European staples.
So it’s not a surprise to anyone with culinary intuition that Chinese cuisine needs a facelift, and 19-year-old chef Luther Bob Chen is striving to be the change it needs, beginning with his intimate supper club, Xian Wei.
Xian Wei is a fine dining experience, highlighting dishes inspired by seven Chinese regions from the heavily Muslim province Xinjiang to the coastal city Xiamen. The first iteration of the dinner party’s seasonal menu includes street foods like garlicky oysters with vermicelli and introduces patrons to the role of lamb in Northern Chinese. Detailed explanations accompany each dish, with the chef’s passion for his creations coming through like precise, fiery darts of expertise as he guides the diners through the history and cultural relevancy of the plate before them, always preceding his presentation with “Guys, please begin eating.”
While the food may not be strictly traditional – the sous-vided cod with the bitter green gai lan may be more French than Chinese – it’s exactly what Californian cuisine needs. Over the past decade, Japanese influences have made their way into tasting menus, creating fusion with yuzu kosho creme fraiche and sprinkles of togorashi. Shiitake mushrooms have become readily accepted accompaniments for protein dishes and kabocha squash isn’t an oddity for a winter appetizer. Korean food has even begun to see a fusion into mainstream LA cuisine, thanks largely to Roi Choi and his infamous Kogi truck. So it would make sense that in order to bring high-quality Chinese food into accepted Western dining culture, it would first need to be elevated and melded with French fine-dining influences (although a food truck is in the works).
And yet, despite this, the courses that elicited moans of delight were the most foreign. A fresh tofu in doufu ru (fermented bean curd) broth was the high point of the evening, with the impressively-soft tofu contrasting delectably against minced quahogs. The intensely aromatic consommé heightened the Anhui-inspired dish to maximal possibility of savor, only slightly helped along by a pinch of MSG. One couple at the table had returned specifically for this dish, and contemplations were muttered between diners about the possibility of asking for seconds.
There’s no question that Chen is on to something, nor that he’s a chef to watch out for. Strokes of genius flash throughout the menu, and his dessert course marrying tang yuan (a glutinous rice dumpling with black sesame inside) and chakhao amubi (black rice) is an impressively authentic creation given that Chinese cuisine has never included a sweet meal-ender. All of the right notes are hit throughout the evening, incorporating each taste from bitter to umami and a wide array of textures from silky to crispy. There are no corners cut nor easy outs taken, even if that means combing Los Angeles for rare ingredients like dried scallops (which sell for a hefty $100/lb) that he poaches and shreds to make his own XO sauce. What he can’t find at local Chinese markets he grows himself or forages for, which requires a knowledge rarely seen among local chefs. The fact that he does all this while delivering an excellent meal is notable; the fact that he’s only 19 defies logic.
There are a few kinks to work out with service, wine pairings, and the occasional over-seasoning, but when you consider Chen’s age and the fact that this is a supper club held in his own home, any flaws are more than forgivable. One thing is for sure: Luther Bob Chen is only heading up from here. He may not be Michelin-good yet, but I’d be willing to put money on him heading a starred restaurant in the future.
It may be worth your while to get an autographed copy of the menu while you can.